Divine Rights

Do our freedoms come from the State?

Politico reporter Heidi Przybyla recently said on MSNBC that Christian Nationalists (as a small subset of Christians) are the only people in America who have ever believed their political rights are granted by God. Her claim was rightly met with widespread ridicule and refutation. I have no way of knowing whether Przybyla’s words are as ignorant as they seem or rather whether they represent an open and unembarrassed rejection of America’s founding principles. One fellow traveler of Przybyla’s came to her defense with the assertion that if our rights are derived from God then they are at the mercy of anyone claiming to speak for God. Przybyla signaled that this was her main point as well. This inclines me to believe that Przybyla spoke of what she desires for our nation.

Any elementary school child knows (or at least once knew) the absurdity of the claim that the founders didn’t believe our rights come from God. The obvious example people have pointed to is the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This was a notion acknowledged by virtually everyone at America’s founding. Consider a few examples (taken from Thomas G. West, The Political Theory of America’s Founding, p. 85-86):

The 1765 Massachusetts Assembly Resolves on the Stamp Act: “That there are certain essential rights of the British constitution of government, which are founded in the law of God and nature, and are the common rights of mankind.” 

Alexander Hamilton: “[T]here is a supreme intelligence who rules the world, and has established laws to regulate the actions of his creatures. . . . This is what is called the law of nature. . . . Upon this law, depend the natural rights of mankind.” 

James Wilson: “[P]roperly speaking, there is only one general source of superiotiy and obligation. God is our creator: in him we live, and move, and have our being. . . . [H]e, as master of his own work, can prescribe to it whatever rules to him shall seem meet. . . . This is the true source of all authority.”

Even John Locke argued similarly when he grounded the right to revolution against tyrants in his Second Treatise on Government in “the common refuge, which God hath provided for all Men, against Force and Violence.” Unless such a refuge existed in God’s moral law and the natural rights derived from it, Locke insisted elsewhere, man “could have no law but his own will, no end but himself. He would be a god to himself, and the satisfaction of his own will the sole measure and end of all his actions.” Since Christian Nationalism apparently stretches back to at least Christopher Columbus, this may also explain Locke’s reasoning, but I digress.

Such examples could be multiplied ad nauseum. My purpose in this column is not to rehash this indisputable historical point. Instead, I want to examine the thinking behind what Przybyla admitted was her real point: that America should be a country in which our rights are derived by the mere declaration of whoever happens to write our laws and administrative rules, and whoever enforces them. Przybyla’s view, of course, is not neutral with regard to God. Instead of recognizing that our rights come from God, it requires a state-mandated and enforced public atheism, but that is a discussion for another time.

The founders insisted that our rights are derived from God. If our rights are derived merely from state diktat then they can be taken away by the state under any pretext (or none at all). It is obviously the case that our rights can be taken from us even when we acknowledge that they come from God. Someone or some group may be powerful enough to deny us the freedom to speak openly, the freedom to peaceably assemble, and any other freedom we are granted in our Constitution. Such actions, however, would be obvious usurpations of rights the founders insisted were intrinsic to the human condition because they were granted by God, not men.

Przybyla’s position would be to enshrine such usurpations into our laws and jurisprudence. It would be an acceptance of a political principle of brute force, of might makes right. I wonder whether she has considered the implications of such a state of affairs. It would spell the end of our current form of republican government. One can make the argument that our official form of government is already significantly subverted by groups successfully denying key constitutionally granted rights. Be that as it may, it is quite another thing to insist that this is exactly how it should be.

In the build-up to the brief Irish Civil War of 1922-23 between two factions seeking Irish independence from England one of the key antagonists, Arthur Griffith, recognized that his chief opponent, Eamon de Valera, was attempting to wholly circumvent parliamentary procedure and force through a foundational constitutional change with wording that would mask his real intent. Griffith confronted de Valera in legislative debate with his subterfuge, to which de Valera responded: “I’m going to choose my own procedure.” “Griffith was outraged. He rose to his feet and said in a formal, even tone, ‘I submit it is not in the competence of the President to choose his own procedure. This is either a constitutional body or it is not. If it is an autocracy let you say so and we will leave it’” (Tim Pat Coogan, Michael Collins, pp. 302-3).

Przybyla’s insistence that we must reject the notion that our rights come from God should be met with the same response as Griffith’s to de Valera: “America is either a republic with rights derived from God or it is not. If it is an autocracy let you say so and we will leave it.” I, for one, do not think Przybyla would find herself happy in the end with the results of her political opponents leaving America’s constitutional order and government. I hope that will not be the case either. But it cannot be the case that merely one side of the political spectrum will continue forever to honor the divine, inalienable rights of man while the other side places all power in their own hands to give and take away rights merely as it sees fit.

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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.

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